Ancient and modern

Ancient and modern: Herodotus on 111

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

The NHS 111 line, designed to deal with problems that do not count as emergencies, is in financial and organisational trouble yet again, but the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 490-c. 425 BC) may be able to help. In his travels he came across a ‘most ingenious’ public medical service.

Many ancient cultures made important observations about the workings of the body and cures for illness, but it was ancient Greeks who tried to rationalise the process. Hippocrates, the father of rational medicine (5th-century bc), laid down the key principle as follows: ‘What escapes our vision we must grasp by mental sight, and the doctor, being unable to see the nature of the disease nor to be told of it, must have recourse to reasoning from the symptoms with which he is presented.’


Doctors were in fact commonplace in the Greek world. They honed up their skills on private patients, and their aim was to be appointed public physician to a town. But on his travels to Babylonia (modern Iraq), Herodotus was surprised to find that there were no doctors at all. Anyone who fell ill, however, was immediately taken out on to the street. Once there, no one was allowed to walk past in silence, but custom demanded that they ask what the trouble was. The invalid duly explained, and it was then up to the passer-by to offer the sufferer advice, ‘either from personal experience, or from his observations of similar complaints in others. Anyone will stop by the sick man’s side and suggest remedies which he has himself proved successful in whatever the trouble may be, or which he has known to succeed with other people’.

One can see why Herodotus was so greatly taken by this scheme. Since everyone who is not feeling well loves to talk about it, as does everyone who has their own remedy for everyday ills, it would be an efficient way of pooling common experience over non-urgent aches and pains and saving the NHS billions. No lengthy waits for an appointment, no hanging around in surgeries either. Indeed, far from having to go to get help, the help comes direct to you! Time, therefore, to launch the ‘Neighbourhood Doc’ scheme.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
Close